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Short Title, Interpretation, Commencement And Extent

Volume 932: debated on Friday 20 May 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.8 a.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 5, line 1, leave out

'Passenger Vehicles (Educational and Other Purposes)'
and insert 'Minibus'.

When this excellent Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt), received its Second Reading on 11th February, I said that it was in every respect a splendid measure because it was beginning to chip away at our archaic licensing laws. I added that the new freedom that the Bill would give to those who wished to operate minibuses and the advantages which it would confer upon the disadvantaged—namely, those who wished to engage in sporting or other activities—were in every respect admirable.

There was only one criticism which I made then of the Bill, and that was concerning its Title. Prolixity—this is a lawyer speaking, Mr. Speaker—is one of the vices of the age, and it is often the vice of the virtuous—the one blemish on an otherwise unstained character. My hon. Friend deserved all those tributes, but I cannot imagine why he described the Bill as the Passenger Vehicles (Educational and Other Purposes) Bill when he could so much better and more fruitfully have described it as the Minibus Bill. That is the only criticism I make of my hon. Friend. Happily, we have the opportunity of putting right this tiny blemish in the Bill.

What is remarkable is that this tendency to prolixity, which is sometimes the vice of lawyers, is a continuing vice of successive Governments. The bureaucracy of the Civil Service rejoices in using 10 words if one will serve the purpose equally well. However—and this is why this morning is such a memorable occasion—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport has indicated to my hon. Friend and to myself that the Government favour this change in the Bill or, if that is going too far, at least will not object to it. Therefore, we ought to pay tribute this morning to the Undersecretary of State. In a Committee upstairs I described him as one of the rising stars of an otherwise really bad Government, and I repeat that tribute this morning.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that "meteor" would have been a more happy choice of phrase, cutting the number of words by 50 per cent?

I now propose to give way to the Minister. I almost called him my hon. Friend, but I suppose I shall get into trouble with the Government side if I do that. No doubt the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), the Shadow Secretary of State for the Liberal Party, will be able to make his comments later.

I commend the amendment to the House. It has the virtue of brevity. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his splendid Bill, and I hope that the House will on other occasions make further progress in ridding our country of the pernicious licensing laws.

I welcome the suggestion of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). If I had to choose, there is only one title for the Bill that I could perhaps prefer to "Minibus", and that is "Hunt". That would be an even shorter title, use even fewer letters and be even more graphic and memorable.

I am sure that the measure will be known as the Hunt Act when it becomes law, just as many other measures have come to be known by the names of their originators. I am thinking of the Dykes Act, whose proper title I can never remember. We do not have a Gow Act, but I am sure that if we had some Gow Acts we should all know what they were about. Nevertheless, I welcome the suggestion that this measure should be called the Minibus Bill.

I should like briefly to concur with all that has been said. Instead of criticising his hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) for bringing in this very good Bill, which would have been totally unnecessary had it not been for the over-exertion of chief constables in bringing pointless prosecutions, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) should have directed his criticism to the Public Bill Office which is, of course enormously helpful, but if ever I heard words that seem to have come straight from those helpful people in the Public Bill Office, the Public Vehicles (Educational and Other Purposes) Bill is just that.

Whether it is called the Minibus Bill, which I hope it will be, or the Hunt Bill, which I think would be dangerous—and I speak as someone who has considered a number of Bills trying to abolish anything to do with hunting, coursing and similar recreations—the Title would be unfortunate. It would conjure up other types of pastime than legalising what should never have been illegal.

If a bus is used for purposes other than financial gain, competence, rather than a pernickety licence which is difficult to get, for which there is a long waiting list and which involves many people who are desperately against granting anything the first time because there is always the chance the second time, should be the deciding factor.

I wish the hon. Gentleman well. If I may express one hope, it is that when he is as fortunate in the draw next year as he was this year his Bill will be one that will have more resounding consequences for the nature of life in our country.

11.15 a.m.

I, too, support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirrall (Mr. Hunt) on his Bill.

I think that the importance of what is being done in changing the Title is that it underlines the very importance of the Bill. If I were to quarrel in any way with what was said by the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), it would be on the basis that I regard this as an extremely important Bill not only for what it does, but for what it replaces. Its direct achievement is the help that it will give to voluntary organisations and schools, and no one who has studied those areas will dispute the need for that help.

The Bill is also important for what it replaces. The measure is now to be called the Minibus Bill. That is right, because what it illustrates is that the law that we are changing is not a post-war piece of legislation, but the Road Traffic Act 1930, an Act based on the 1928 Royal Commission on transport, an Act based on the transport conditions in this country in the decade following the First World War and, not surprisingly, that legislation is now out of date.

No one had ever heard of minibuses at the stage when that Act was drafted and brought into effect. The problems with which we are dealing today are not those dealt with by that Act. The Bill has sensibly brought the law up to date. It has recognised the need and by a series of sensible reforms has sought to meet it.

Almost certainly the Bill is not the last word on the subject, because new needs will appear and the law will have to take account of them, but surely what we should learn is that there are other parts of the licensing law that need to be reformed. This is not in any sense the end of the process.

My hon. Friend has produced an extremely valuable Bill. It marks the beginning of a reforming process that an incoming Conservative Government will complete. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne on finding a much better Title for the Bill, which in itself is an important contribution to that process of reform.

I rise to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) on his powers of persuasion and his charm, which have apparently persuaded the Government on this rare occasion to accept an amendment from this side of the House. I applaud my hon. Friend's desire to reduce the length of the Title of the Bill and to cut down prolixity. This is a worthy amendment, but I wonder whether the new Title might not be somewhat misleading.

I very much welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on introducing it. I agree that this is a much needed reform and that it will give great assistance to those voluntary organisations and certain bodies within the educational sphere, but we have to understand that this measure has a limited objective.

Indeed, we know from the Long Title that we are concerned to
"Make provision for the use of certain motor vehicles by bodies concerned with education, with religion, with social welfare or with other activities for the benefit of the community,"
but we know that the benefit of the community in this instance does not allow the making of profit by other individuals, and therefore we are concerned only with a limited use of minibuses. I should not like people to get the impression that the Minibus Act, as it will be known, is somehow to be seen as a charter that at last deals with the problem of allowing the freer use of commercial minibuses, particularly in rural areas.

I welcome the change. I welcome the Bill. I hope that it will be seen as a paving measure for a Minibus (No. 2) Bill that will take away some of the restrictions that are imposed on the use of commercial minibuses in many areas where there are totally inadequate bus services. It should be understood by the public that this measure has a limited purpose and is only a stepping stone, or a paving measure, for a much broader objective for the future—I hope that my hon. Friend will be successful in the Ballot next year and will introduce a Minibus (No. 2) Bill either from the Front Bench or the Back Benches. Let this Bill be seen as a move towards a liberalisation of the bus services in rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) first mentioned his intention to put down this amendment on Second Reading. Since then I have mulled it over and I have come to the conclusion, as my hon. Friend has urged me on these occasions, to be bold and to accept it.

As my hon. Friend said on Second Reading, the Bill is all about minibuses. I recognise that its Title at the moment is quixotically chivalrous and the amendment makes it much more relevant. The Title proposed by my hon. Friend has the merit of assisting the kind of organisations that I seek to help in the Bill by unequivocally announcing its relevance to their transport activities. Many of these organisations have little acquaintance with legislation. I see now that it is useful that the Title of the Bill should be as clear and concise as possible.

During my consultations I have noticed again and again a widespread lack of knowledge of the present law relating to minibuses. The amendment will go some way to ensuring that my Bill will become more widely known. Originally, I had intended to include larger vehicles, but this is no longer the case. I accept the amendment and recommend it to the House.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the one reservation to prolixity in this case is that if someone wished to know what the laws concerning minibuses were he might feel that the Hunt Bill might tell him all, whereas, having got the Minibus Bill out, he would simply learn something which he never knew could be done, namely, that anyone can drive a minibus?

I am much obliged. I wish that the Title of an Act gave one information about the whole subject, but I do not believe that any transport Act tells all about transport.

I happen to be one of those hon. Members who believe that sooner or later we shall have to codify our law. I would welcome that since if a member of the public goes into the public library and looks up minibuses, he should be able to find the whole of the law relating to minibuses, and the same for transport, landlord and tenant, and every other area of the law. But, unfortunately, that time is still far off. At least the Bill will tell him something about minibuses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) said the Bill went some way, and one looks forward to a further Minibus Bill as and when this experiment, which must by necessity be an experiment, has been working for some time. There are two points that I would add. First, I have had a large number of inquiries about when the new system will be in operation. If all goes well, I hope that the Bill will become law in July. Under the terms of the Bill, its provisions come into effect three months after the Act is passed. This will give time for the necessary orders and regulations to be drawn up.

I understand that preliminary informal consultations have already started. I therefore hope that the new permit system will come into operation by about October. All organisations will be able to apply through a simple procedure for a special permit that will be stuck on the windscreen. My Bill has a limited purpose, I agree, but it is aimed at helping charities, schools, churches, voluntary organisations and organisations concerned with social welfare. It will, I hope, provide a much-needed boost to their activities.

Secondly, I should like to say a word about safety. Carrying passengers, and particularly children, is a heavy responsibility. Let me make it clear that the Minibus Bill does not relax any safety requirements. All minibuses from 1st January will have to take a specially extended MOT test at special Government testing stations. Under EEC roadworthiness rules, an annual test will be required in due course once the vehicle is a year old. Fitness conditions will be laid down under the Bill, and these will be minimum standards. I hope that all organisations will ensure that the higher standards of safety will be maintained at all times.

The Minibus Bill establishes for the minibus a special and unique place in our law. It will be seen by many as an important experiment that will be watched closely by other countries. This is the result of months of consultation with more than 250 organisations, and it will, I hope, establish a system that will be effective for many years to come.

I recommend that the House accepts the amendment. It also recognises the work done by the original working party, whose report was entitled "Fare Deal for Minibuses". I hope the Bill provides a fair deal for those minibuses that are used by these organisations.

I am much obliged for all the kind remarks that have been said during this short discussion which, I understand, has been merely on the amendment. I hope that the House will accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 ( Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.